Funding approved for water sustainability study

The sales tax increase that Minnesotans approved last fall will pay for $151 million worth of water protection, water clean-up and water research.  For the first time, state law includes a definition of sustainable water use.

The sales tax increase that Minnesota voters approved last fall will pay for $151 million worth of water protection, water clean-up and water research over the next two years under a law enacted this spring.

The law directs the University of Minnesota to develop 10- and 25-year plans for ensuring that groundwater aquifers, lakes, rivers and wetlands are managed sustainably. And, for the first time, the legislation wrote into state law an explicit definition of sustainable water use – use that weighs both human needs and the needs of ecosystems.

An October 2008 Freshwater Society report that questioned whether current patterns of groundwater use are sustainable in the light of expected state population increase of 1 million people played a major role in the legislation, according to three lawmakers who helped enact the spending plan.

That report, Water Is Life: Protecting a Critical Resource For Future Generations, cited conflicting reports over the years about the sustainability of groundwater pumping in the Twin Cities and called for a “scientifically rigorous study of sustainability that will inspire consensus among experts and citizens.”

State Sen. Sandy Rummel, DFL-White Bear Lake, who chaired a subcommittee that wrote the water portion of legislation that also covered wildlife habitat, parks and trails and the arts, said she assembled a thick file of previous reports on Minnesota’s water resources. But she said the Freshwater report was the one she relied on most.

“This was the one I started with,” Rummel said of the Freshwater report. “It was the one I went to last. And it was the one I depended on all through it.”

Two other key legislators with deep interest in water and the environment – Rep. Jean Wagenius, the chair of the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the House Finance Committee, and Sen. Ellen Anderson, chair of the Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Budget Division of the Senate Finance Committee – also cited the Freshwater report’s impact on the discussion of water sustainability this year.

“It was very important to me,” Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, said of the report.

Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, said the Freshwater report played a key role in focusing attention on groundwater. And the vote last fall by Minnesota citizens to increase the sales tax by three-eighths of one percent to benefit the environment and the arts gave lawmakers the money – even in a time of state deficits – to boost spending on water.

“Water went from being a non-issue to being a huge issue,” Wagenius said. “And part of it was your (the Freshwater Society’s) work, and part of it was the new money.”

The water spending plan appropriates $750,000 for the University of Minnesota Water Resources to prepare a 25-year sustainability plan that will also have a 10-year component. The legislation directs the university to enlist the assistance of a string of state, federal and local governmental agencies, plus “private nonprofits with expertise in water resources,” in writing the plans.

Anderson, Wagenius and Rummell said they expected the Freshwater Society would be involved in helping the university. The society currently is co-sponsoring, with the Water Resources Center, a series of workshops on sustainability for groundwater professionals. The workshops have been aimed, in part, at developing a shared understanding about how to think about, measure and model sustainability across Minnesota.

Deb Swackhamer, co-director of the Water Resources Center, said she, too, envisioned that the Freshwater Society would be asked to play some role in preparing the sustainability plans.

The new definition written into state law for water sustainability provides that, for the purposes of the 10- and 25-year plans, water uses will be considered sustainable when they do not “harm ecosystems, degrade water quality or compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”

Wagenius said the definition’s explicit recognition of the needs of ecosystems was a victory for the environment over purely human needs and values.

The $151 million in water funding is part of about $397 million the Legislature and Gov. Tim Pawlenty approved spending over two years on wildlife habitat, water, parks and trails and the arts.

The water spending will maintain an effort, begun in 2006, to dramatically speed up the testing and clean-up of lakes and rivers. “We were on track to get this done in 40 years maybe, if we were lucky,” Anderson said. “Now we will get there in 10 years.”